Submissions/Article creation in the composition classroom

From Wikimania 2011 • Haifa, Israel

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Title of the submission
Article creation in the university composition classroom
Type of submission (workshop, tutorial, panel, presentation)
Author of the submission
Lynn Marie Hamilton
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Affiliation, if any (organization, company etc.)
Georgia Southern University
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Abstract (please use no less than 300 words to describe your proposal)

I have found that assigning university students to write for Wikipedia in their freshman composition classes:

  • Builds on what they learned to do in high school, especially the purely informative book report.
  • Students come to Georgia Southern University with a diverse skill set, but one thing most of them have been exposed to is the book report where they summarize something they have read in their own words. The Wikipedia requirement that writers do no original research, but base everything on sources can build on the book report requirement by having students juggle several sources instead of basing their work on a single source.
  • Gives students an opportunity to write for a real audience which they can track and document with page views. College composition classes almost universally preach audience awareness as a means of shaping a piece of writing. However, there are problems with telling students to identify an audience and write for that audience in the composition classroom.

The main problem is that students, rightfully, feel that the real audience for their writing is their teacher, the person giving them a grade that will affect their ability to get into med school, MBA program, etc. in the absence of any other authority giving feedback on a paper, this perception that the teacher is the only one who has to be pleased gains momentum.

The next problem is that students often have difficulty identifying and then getting their work to a real audience. An audience is not real unless students actually send their work to be published in the venue they have identified. This is where the process of writing for an audience often breaks down. In other words, a student will say, "I'm writing this editorial for the editorial page of my local newspaper," but the editorial never actually finds its way into those pages because the student has limited confidence in his ability to publish or, rightfully, believes that it will not ultimately matter because the teacher cannot possibly give a grade based on whether the writing is published. So what actually happens is that students end up writing for an imagined audience--one that the student can make the teacher believe exists. So a student says, "I'm writing this editorial for my local newspaper," and the teacher green lights the project. Somewhere in the process of writing and submitting the editorial, the student learns that his local paper never publishes unsolicited copy, and the process breaks down.

The final problem is that, where students do successfully identify and write for an audience, the audiences may be so diverse as to make evaluation difficult. So, in other words, as a teacher I might be faced with two papers in response to the same assignment. One is a 200 word letter to the editor which was published in the New York Times, and the other is a 1000 word opinion piece published on an amateur blog. Both these products fulfill the assignment, and both are equally successful in reaching their audience, but they are so different from each other as to make grading the assignments very difficult.

  • Allows students to write about what they’re interested in within reasonable limitations which also encourage students to explore their own communities and home regions for potential topics.

Granite Bowl

Godfrey Barnsley

Bulloch County Courthouse

What do professors have to do when teaching students to write for Wikipedia?

I. Creating your own 500 word or longer Wikipedia article is a good way to learn the ropes and sets a good example to students of how to write for a specific audience. My participation in a recent Wikipedia higher education summit confirms the importance of this step. A lot of the problems that professors in the pilot program had would have been most easily resolved if they themselves had actually become Wikipedians.

(I understand the resistance that professors with earned doctorates and academic publications feel to writing on Wikipedia. And this has to do with the fact that, no matter who you are, when you start writing for Wikipedia, you become a beginner. People who write for Wikipedia inevitably learn from trial and error. And some people really, really don't want to be beginners again ever in their lifetimes. )

The campus ambassador program DOES help students confronted with a "write for Wikipedia" assignment. Nevertheless, I feel strongly that professors unwilling to contribute to Wikipedia even in a small way probably should not assign the Wikipedia project. It's unfair to students and disrespectful to Wikipedia.

II. Be sure students know and can demonstrate use of the edit-write-save system, coded citations, summary, and paraphrase early in the project. The best way to do this is to assign a graded assignment that has students do a few edits, including cited content, on Wikipedia before moving on to a more ambitious project. Because students are learning to do a number of new things when they write for Wikipedia, both intellectual and technical, it's good pedagogy to create a series of gradually more difficult assignments that allow them to demonstrate mastery of a few things at a time. This step-by-step process mirrors the advice that Wikipedia gives to new writers which is, basically, learn what you're doing by doing small edits before uploading a whole new article.

III. It very important--not so much to the Wikipedia community--but to students that they have an evaluation of their work that is not dependent on Wikipedia commentary. The process I use here is to have students build and write their articles on a test page. All they have to do to submit their work is to email me a link to the test page. Then I give them a grade and feedback on their papers. They can make improvements to the test pages based on my feedback. THEN and only then do they upload their articles to the live encyclopedia. This usually takes place around midterm in my classes. Students in my class do get another, smaller grade on their final Wikipedia project and at that point I do look at how they responded to feedback that they got from Wikipedia editors, but the first grade establishes that they are ultimately being evaluated by me and not by WP. The other virtue of test pages is that they do not get deleted, so students don't have the problem of having nothing to submit for a grade if their article is deleted.

IV. Instructors teaching with Wikipedia need to be prepared for some resistance. It’s somewhat controversial. Many United States high school teachers have prejudiced students against Wikipedia. It's worth noting that many of the things high school students have been taught about Wikipedia come from people who are not only not Wikipedians, but who have no real idea the process that articles uploaded to WP go through.

I'm still working out how exactly to talk to students about Wikipedia without giving false impressions. Nothing that I tell them will be news to the WP community, but you might be interested in some of the things that students DO NOT know about Wikipedia. Among them:

That WP is a non-profit organization.

That WP is not professionally written (in its entirety).

That "anyone can edit" and that there's no quality control. This is what many of my students are taught in high school.

What I tell students about Wikipedia is that it is a huge collaborative volunteer project and that, like any huge collaborative volunteer project, it is never going to achieve 100% accuracy or perfection. When it comes to deciding the merits of WP, I do not dictate to students, I try to let them form their own conclusions by generating discussion. In other words, it's not my job as a college professor to make students enthusiasts of Wikipedia, but it is my job to show them how much influence Wikipedia has and how it works. They can then decide how much they want to rely on Wikipedia and how much they want to participate.

V. Make sure points include: telling students not to use a Wikipedia article as a source for another Wikipedia article, signing posts, signing in and filling in edit summaries to avoid accusations of vandalism, and how to respond to a deletion nomination. Instructors also have to actively steer students away from writing about their friends, their favorite garage bands, their church groups, and their high school teachers. In most cases, these articles are destined for deletion, and there’s ultimately nothing the instructor can do. Picking a topic carefully is really important. And, for this assignment to really work, students must be somehow rewarded--with a grade, usually--for writing articles which have enough credibility to remain on the site.

How does the Wikipedia community benefit?

  • New content that has been prescreened for clarity of writing and accuracy of research.

Here are two Wikipedia articles that were created by my students and which made the "Did you know?" page:

Antiviral protein

Baird Mountains

  • New users who may continue to contribute to Wikipedia beyond the confines of the course.
  • More accurate perceptions of how Wikipedia works amongst the college educated.
  • More coverage of local topics, especially in rural areas.

What can the Wikipedia community do to help students writing for Wikipedia?

  • Support the higher education program
  • Provide a list of topics already screened for notability. This could just be a modification of the requested articles list.
  • Improve nutshells, like WP:notability
  • Give new users time to work on an article before putting it up for deletion.
  • Think about complimenting new users on what they have done well.

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  1. CT Cooper · talk 23:24, 31 January 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  2. Sadads 01:35, 24 February 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  3. HstryQT 03:14, 25 February 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  4. Helder Ribeiro 18:08, 15 March 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  5. Ironholds 22:24, 16 March 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  6. Hindustanilanguage 11:18, 29 March 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  7. Bejinhan 03:44, 3 April 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  8. Frank Schulenburg 16:26, 13 April 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  9. ARoth (Public Policy Initiative) 23:30, 28 April 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  10. Spiritia 09:08, 29 April 2011 (UTC)[reply]
  11. Vibhijain 13:51, 4 May 2011 (UTC)[reply]